The New England Patriots made a shocking acquisition on Saturday: just a few hours after his release from the Oakland Raiders, the team signed wide receiver Antonio Brown to a one-year, $15 million contract. While Brown is not eligible to play against his former team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, later today, the contract shows that the Patriots expect big things out of the 31-year-old.
With that being said, let’s take a closer look at what the deal means for the reigning world champions.
New England has an embarrassment of riches on offense
Earlier during the offseason, the Patriots had plenty of questions at the pass catching positions: Rob Gronkowski had retired, and Chris Hogan and Cordarrelle Patterson left via free agency. Fast forward to today, and the team employs arguably the most talented group of wide receivers in the NFL — with potential top five players at all major positions: Josh Gordon at X, Antonio Brown at Z, and Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman in the slot.
Add veteran Demaryius Thomas and undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers, who made the roster after a standout performance during training camp, and you get yourself as deep a position group as any in the NFL. And that’s just the active wide receivers: first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry, for example, will open the season on injured reserve and potentially serve as a reinforcement option further down the line.
Add a) deep running back corps led by Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead, b) one of the NFL’s best offensive lines (even without starting center David Andrews, who will spend the season on injured reserve), and c) the cherry on top — the greatest quarterback of all time, Tom Brady — and you get an offense that could very well be the NFL’s best in 2019. To go even further:
The offense might be the most talented in team history
New England has had some incredibly talented offensive attacks over the years — from 1978’s historic rushing attack, to the well-balanced 2004 team, to 2007s 16-0 squad, to the two-tight end sets of the early 2010s. Top to bottom, however, the current squad might be better than any of those units. Does this mean that the group will outperform the ‘07 team — still arguably the greatest offensive attack the league has ever seen? No, but it cannot be argued that the potential is at least similar if everything goes according to plan.
The ‘Patriot Way’ might get tested
Antonio Brown is one of the NFL’s unique characters — one that publicly requested his release from his last two teams, and that has not always been the model team-first player. Some recent appearances in interviews and on social media confirm this, although one has to wonder how much the Raiders organization played part in his frequent outbursts and eventually the divorce between the two.
Now, however, Brown finds himself in the NFL’s most challenging environment: the Patriots under head coach Bill Belichick are a no-nonsense, team-first organization that puts a premium on players ‘doing their job.’ Brown certainly cannot go about his own job in New England like he did in Oakland: despite $10 million in guarantees, the Patriots will not hesitate to let him go again if he hurts the team.
The first signs are encouraging, though. And while his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, is obviously biased, his statements on ESPN on Saturday night paint a positive picture: “I’ve discussed this with Antonio. And he wants to be a Patriot. He’s prepared to go there, fit in, work hard, be like every other player on the team, do what’s asked of him, do his job and make it work. He’s honored with the opportunity and he’s looking forward to taking advantage of it.”
A follow-up transaction will have to be made...
Given the time of his release — Saturday 4:00 pm ET — Brown will not officially join the Patriots until Monday. When he does, however, the team will need to make a follow-up transaction to fit him under its 53-man sideline. Today’s season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers might impact the decision making process in case one of the Patriots’ wide receivers gets hurt. Ideally, though, one of the depth players will get the axe.
The most realistic player to be ‘sacrificed’ for Brown is undrafted rookie wideout Gunner Olszewski. While he did have his moments over the course of the summer, the Patriots were already prepared to move on from him on roster cutdown day before a change of plans at the last minute. Now, however, Olszewski might become the odd man out. His usage against Pittsburgh will certainly be an indicator about his future in New England.
...and salary cap space probably needs to be created
As things currently stand, the Patriots have $6.38 million in salary cap space (according to the Boston Sports Journal’s Miguel Benzan). This means that the team would have to create additional room to fit Brown under its cap if the reported structure of the contract — one year, $15 million, $10 million in guarantees — turns out to be correct. Of course, New England has options to alter the deal without touching any of the guarantees.
The Patriots could, for example, structure it like the one Darrelle Revis signed in 2014: back then, they spread the one-year deal out over two seasons to limit the salary cap hit in both years with the second season dependent on a team option that was never picked up. Something similar could happen in the current situation if the team does not find other ways to create room under the cap until Monday.
Don’t count on Brown bringing back a third-round compensatory pick
If Brown is indeed ‘just’ a one-year rental, there is a realistic chance he leaves via free agency next March. In that case, he would factor in the Patriots’ compensatory draft picks formula. That being said, even if he signs a multi-million deal New England might not get more than a fifth-round pick for losing Brown: with him scheduled to have ten accrued seasons under his belt by the end of the year, he falls under an obscure rule that limits the impact of veteran players on the formula.